District of Columbia: Ford’s Theatre

Ford’s Theatre is infamous in United States history as the place where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. Its restoration and reopening in 1968 put it back in its old place as a center for the performing arts in the U.S. capital.

Site Office

Ford’s Theatre National Historical Site

511 Tenth Street NW

Washington, DC 20004

ph.: (202) 426-6924

fax: (202) 347-6269

Web site: www.nps.gov/foth/

The significance of Ford’s Theatre in American history was defined on the evening of April 14, 1865, when actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth fatally wounded President Abraham Lincoln as he watched a performance of Tom Taylor’s popular comedy Our American Cousin. Founder John T. Ford undoubtedly had a high place in American theater history in mind when he opened his venue in August, 1863, but no theater was performed in the building from the night of the assassination until the theater reopened in 1968, restored by private gifts and federal funding to replicate as closely as possible its appearance over a century before. Both an active performing arts center and a historical site, Ford’s Theatre takes one back to its dramatic nineteenth century past by its careful restoration, associated museum exhibits, and the restored Petersen House across the street where Lincoln died, without recovering consciousness, at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.

Ford’s New Theatre

The story of Ford’s Theatre really begins with John T. Ford. A veteran manager and producer with experience in Philadelphia and Baltimore, Ford bought the former Tenth Street Baptist Church, remodeling it to become Ford’s Atheneum, a popular music hall which he managed with the help of his brothers Harry and James. President Lincoln’s first visit as a member of the audience came on May 28, 1862, when he and his party attended a concert by Claire Louise Kellogg. However, on the evening of December 30, a fire destroyed the converted church building, as well as the sets and costumes of the show scheduled to open the next night.

The determined Ford immediately began a new, larger, and more elaborate building. It would seat an audience of seventeen hundred in unusual comfort. Contemporary accounts stress excellent sight lines to the stage, modern ventilation and water circulation systems, and comfort of the seating. Of special interest were the boxes. The upper boxes, in particular, gave excellent views of both the stage and the audience. They were places to see and be seen, and boxes seven and eight, on stage left, were consolidated when needed into the “presidential” or “state” box. Ford’s New Theatre soon established itself as one of the country’s finest new theatrical venues. One highlight of the 1863 season was a two-week run in November with John Wilkes Booth, then regarded as one of America’s most exciting young actors, appearing in both contemporary and Shakespearean roles. Though Lincoln was a lover of Shakespearean drama, he seems not to have attended any of Booth’s Shakespeare performances. He did see Booth in the contemporary play The Marble Heart. In 1864, Booth had abandoned full-time performing to pursue business interests and secret activities in support of the Confederacy. The Fords, in the meantime, continued to run a successful theatrical enterprise until April 14, 1865, when the Lincoln assassination put an end to theater at Ford’s Theatre for over a century.

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

By the spring of 1865, the tide of war had turned decisively in favor of the Union, and on April 9, Ulysses S. Grant accepted Robert E. Lee’s surrender at the small town of Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia. With that event the Civil War was all but over.

During these events, Booth had remained an avid Lincoln-hater, putting together a loosely organized group of Southern sympathizers in an unsuccessful attempt to kidnap Lincoln, take him to Richmond, and trade him for Confederate prisoners. The surrender of General Lee negated the prisoner exchange idea, and Booth began plotting assassination. His motivations now became revenge against the North and the glorification of himself as the killer of a tyrant on the model of Brutus, the idealistic assassin in William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Despite the failure of the kidnapping attempt, the core members of Booth’s gang were still in touch with each other in the Washington, D.C., area. When the Fords received a request for tickets from the White House for President and Mrs. Lincoln and for General and Mrs. Grant, they made their attendance part of the advertising for the Good Friday performance of the English comedy Our American Cousin, with popular British actress Laura Keene in the lead role. Ticket sales soared when people realized they could see both Lincoln and Grant in person, and John Wilkes Booth, whose long friendship with John T. Ford gave him free and frequent access to the theater, immediately set a complex attack plan into action. Lewis Powell and David Herold would murder Secretary of State William Seward, who was bedridden at home from a carriage accident. George Atzerodt would kill Vice President Andrew Johnson in his hotel room, and Booth would end the life of President Lincoln with a theatrical flourish in front of a house packed with Lincoln admirers and, no doubt, many of his own.

Booth’s part of the plan called for him to have a horse held for him in a public alleyway beside a door that exited from the backstage area of Ford’s Theatre. Booth waited until President and Mrs. Lincoln were seated (the Grants declined at the last minute), and the play was well under way before he climbed the stairs from the orchestra, crossed the dress circle, and entered the presidential box quietly through a rear door and anteroom. Unchallenged by any security personnel, Booth fired a single shot from his .44-caliber Derringer pistol into the back of the president’s head. After a brief but fierce struggle with Major Henry Rathbone, who, along with his fiancée Clara Harris, was a substitute guest for the Grants, Booth jumped to the stage, apparently stumbling as he landed, and faced the stunned audience to shout, “Sic semper tyrannis!” (Thus ever to tyrants!), a Revolutionary War rallying cry and the motto on the state flag of Virginia. In the confusion that followed, Booth escaped on his horse and left his pursuers behind.

Inside the theater, chaos ruled. Dr. Charles Leale was the first of three physicians who reached the presidential box. He located the bullet wound, which traversed Lincoln’s skull from above and behind his left ear to its stopping place behind the right eye. Brain damage was substantial. Leale stabilized Lincoln’s condition by using artificial respiration to restore his breathing, but the president never recovered consciousness.

Doctors and volunteers from the audience improvised a stretcher and slowly and painstakingly moved the comatose Lincoln out of the theater and into a second-floor bedroom of a boardinghouse across the street. This is the Petersen House, which has been restored to period condition and is administered by the National Park Service as part of the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site. At approximately 11 p.m., April 14, the president was stretched out diagonally on a bed too small for his lanky frame. For over eight hours, attended by doctors, government officials, his wife, and his eldest son, Lincoln remained alive but unconscious. Death was pronounced at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865, ten days after Lee’s surrender to Grant.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton took immediate charge, launching a massive investigation and manhunt for Lincoln’s killer, as well as for the assailants who nearly succeeded in taking Secretary of State Seward’s life (George Atzerodt fled without making his attempt on Andrew Johnson). In succeeding days, the conspirators were rounded up and imprisoned to await trial. Booth, trapped by a force of army cavalry and police detectives at a farm in Virginia, was shot and killed resisting arrest.

All eight known conspirators who survived were convicted. Four were hanged, and the other four went to prison for varying lengths of time.

Immediate Aftermath for the Theater

In the wake of the assassinations, theatrical activity came to a halt at Ford’s New Theatre, with the exception of several reenactments of the fatal scene of Our American Cousin for investigators attempting to reconstruct the details of the crime. Ford himself, and everybody involved in that night’s production, fell under suspicion, and many went to jail until Stanton’s investigators were confident they had all the conspirators in hand. As for Ford, it was his intention to reopen for business on July 7, 1865, less than three months after the assassination, but negative feelings still ran high and Stanton blocked the opening. The Stanton War Department first leased and then purchased the building, rebuilding its interior to house offices, a medical library, and the Army Medical Museum. In 1932, the War Department transferred the building to the National Park Service. Thirty-two years later, Congress authorized funding for the restoration of the theater to serve as both a historic monument to one of the most tumultuous events in American history and as a living theater once again.

Ford’s Theatre Reborn

The nationally televised 1968 gala opening of Ford’s Theatre brought this troubled location back into the mainstream of Washington, D.C.’s cultural life. The gala set a precedent that, since the “Tenth Anniversary Celebration” in 1978, became almost an annual event, first under the title “A Festival at Ford’s,” and during the Clinton administration as “A Gala for the President at Ford’s Theatre.”

The staple of performance activities at the reincarnated Ford’s Theatre has been the presentation of musicals and plays. Many of these have been mounted by the Ford’s Theatre Society, the production arm of the theater itself. These productions have included many world premieres–among them William Gibson’s John and Abigail, Ed Bullins’s Storyville, and Doug Marlette’s Kudzu: A Southern Musical–as well as familiar favorites like Hal Holbrook’s Mark Twain Tonight, Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, and Neil Simon’s Little Me. The first Shakespeare play done was The Comedy of Errors in 1968, and the first American classic was also the new theater’s first dramatic production, the historically relevant John Brown’s Body. Visiting companies have presented classics from abroad such as Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters and John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, and American works by such playwrights as Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller, and Lorraine Hansberry. Nor has serious drama by contemporary writers been neglected, as the presence of challenging works such as Romulus Linney’s Holy Ghosts and Anna Deavere Smith’s Twilight, Los Angeles, 1992 attest. After one hundred years of darkness, the stage of Ford’s Theatre was alive and well again.

Visiting the Site

Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site is administered by the National Park Service and is open every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. except December 25. The theater itself may be visited except when rehearsals or performances are in progress. Periodic tours are given by National Park Service rangers. Within the theater building, there is also a Lincoln Museum, with memorabilia of Lincoln’s life and death, and a bookstore with many items relating to President Lincoln and his life and times. Across the street, the Petersen House, where Lincoln was taken after being shot, has also been restored to its Civil War era look and welcomes visitors. Here one may see the room in which Lincoln died, as well as the rooms in which family waited and in which Secretary of War Stanton launched the manhunt that eventually brought the conspirators to justice.

Washington, D.C., is rich with visitor attractions. Within easy walking distance of Ford’s Theatre are the Federal Bureau of Investigation Building, the National Portrait Gallery, and the National Mall with its striking views and plentiful places of interest.

For Further Information

  • Bishop, Jim. The Day Lincoln Was Shot. New York: Harper & Row, 1955. A best-selling page-turner that tracks the major figures in the story hour by hour through the fatal day.
  • Bryan, George S. The Great American Myth. New York: Carrick & Evans, 1940. Reprint. Chicago: Americana House, 1990. Many experts believe this to be the most authoritative general work on the subject.
  • Good, Timothy S., ed. We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995. Remarkable collection of accounts and reactions by people on the scene.
  • Kunhardt, Dorothy Meserve, and Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr. Twenty Days: A Narrative in Text and Pictures of the Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Harper & Row, 1965. A highly readable text with an amazing collection of photographs of the people and places in the story.
  • Reck, W. Emerson. A. Lincoln: His Last Twenty-four Hours. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1987. Thorough, factual, and detailed account based on recent research.
  • Smith, Gene. American Gothic: The Story of America’s Legendary Theatrical Family–Junius, Edwin, and John Wilkes Booth. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992. Places the assassination in the context of nineteenth century theatrical life.